Research: Quiet! My brain is growing

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Are you a noise person, popping on headphones to blast tunes? Or the quiet type, who feels overwhelmed by chatter and too much noise?

Most people must like noise; it’s everywhere. Long gone are the days when we could shop, dine out, or even go to the doctor without a TV or background music. Even libraries aren’t the haven of silence they once were, with keyboard clicks and patrons who feel free to chatter.

When did we become so uncomfortable with the sound of silence?

Modern research not only indicates this much noise isn’t good for us, it suggests it could actually be dumbing us down. Prior studies linked excessive (and certain kinds of) noise to increased blood pressure, stress, sleep loss, and heart disease.

But now scientists are uncovering benefits of its absence. Apparently, periods of silence increase productivity and can literally grow the brain.

Silence makes us smarter. An oft-cited 2013 Duke University study of mice — common subjects because their brain responses tend to mimic ours — found that two uninterrupted hours of silence daily cause new cell growth in the hippocampus, the area associated with memory, emotion, and learning.

Ironically, silence was used as the control, not the main focus of the experiment. Hoping to learn which type of ambient noise might spark new brain cells, the scientists exposed the mice to (1) “white” noise (sounds with different frequencies, e.g. others’ conversations, or competing background noises); (2) mouse pup calls; (3) Mozart; and (4) silence — as a control factor for comparison.

The researchers said they were surprised to find that silence — the complete absence of auditory input — was the only one which elicited meaningful neuron growth. (Mozart came in second, above the baby mice calls.)

Why? The lead biologist concluded silence may have been such a strange departure from the noisy norm that it heightened the brain’s alertness. This kind of neurogenesis is believed crucial for adapting to change, an evolutionary advantage.

Silence doesn’t mean nothing’s happening — the brain is always working, even in sleep. But silence allows complete processing of all that input so, in a way, the brain can finally focus on its own noise.

Noise distracts the brain, redirecting its focus and preventing it from full concentration, processing, and thought. As one company found, that can be detrimental to our productivity — especially in an open-plan office.

Silence increases productivity. The daily noise of even a relatively “quiet” office still involves interruptions and distractions. It also tends to make team members feel that interruptions and disruption are acceptable, even encouraged. Focused work is then left to chance.

A 2012 University of California study found that office workers average focus periods of just 11 minutes between interruptions. Worse, it took 25 minutes to get back to the level of concentration prior to the interruption.

That’s very inefficient.

At one design firm, noise was such an issue that employees were staying home to work. So the company instituted half-day quiet time: Mornings are no-interruption — no emails, no phone use, no meetings or chit chat.

It took some getting used to, but Milanote CEO Ollie Campbell wrote in 2015 that his team became 23 percent more productive. They also started taking Friday afternoons off because they get so much more done.

Silence is more relaxing than “relaxing music.”

The word “noise” derives from the French root meaning queasiness, or the Latin noxia, meaning pain (people with anxiety can sure relate). One Mesopotamian legend describes gods so disturbed by noise they go on a killing spree.

So if noise indeed irritates, it makes sense that its absence should relax.

A 2006 study published in the Journal Heart examined how the brain reacts to different types of music. Silence was used as a control, but again produced one of the most interesting effects.

Even when compared with so-called “relaxing” music — or even with the long silence before the experiment began — the short, two-minute silent pauses between music clips actually proved more relaxing to the brain.

Does this mean we shouldn’t listen to music or that music isn’t relaxing? Of course not. The effect of silence is heightened by contrasting it with noise, especially the relaxing kind (lower frequency music, water sounds, baby cooing). It seems the best benefit comes from balancing periods of music with periods of silence.

“All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.” — Herman Melville

•••

Sholeh Patrick is the quiet type and a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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